ROLL CAMERA ACTION by Yusof Haslam (2006, Finas, 402 pages)
Yusof Haslam is, as he reminds us, only a year younger than our Prime Minister. But since this book was published during the previous one’s tenure, the closing photograph has him with that other guy instead. (One of them is asking for the other one’s autograph, and I will let you guess who’s doing the asking).
Local cinema in the 1990s was pretty much dominated by Yusof Haslam. It’s not just that he had many hit films (his Sembilu 2 was for a long time the highest-grossing Malaysian flick) but he became a kind of shorthand for ‘commercial cinema.’ Snooty Malay critics (yes, there are a few!) spent lots of time and energy calling his stuff ‘Bollywood-influenced’ and so on. While they bitched, he worked.
Let’s admit it, much of the criticism was motivated by financial envy (he always flaunted his box-office takings) and also class condescension: he started off as a bus conductor, which I think is great, but which some people took as proof that he was in the wrong business.
The ‘Bollywood’ insult also willfully ignores that Malay cinema has always been inextricable from the conventions of populist Indian cinema. It’s a testament to the polymorphous and porous entity that is Malayness itself.
I have seen all his films and I fondly recall catching the first Sembilu in a cinema that has since closed down. There were people all around me who were mouthing lines of dialogue even before they were spoken; meaning this wasn’t their first time watching it. It was then that I realised I was witnessing a phenomenon!
His films weren’t about bus conductors; they had pop stars with swimming-pools (they never used them for fear of ruining their mascara – and those are just the guys), police personnel who spoke very grammatically, and drug-dealing villains with big hair. People always chose to converse in locations that had the KLCC or some other phallus in the background. And they always drank fresh orange juice.
His films were really about post-NEP Malays: they seem educated (but you never see books in their houses) and have disposable incomes (cue romantic shopping montages) and exist within a socially conservative framework. You can always tell a villain, especially in his Gerak Khas films, by their ‘non-Malay’ names like Castello and Karina.
This book compiles his Berita Minggu columns from 2002-4. They aren’t always strictly about films: He cheers on any new leader (PM, DPM, Information Minister and so on) and hopes they will do their best for agama, bangsa dan negara. In fact the columns when read as a whole have a nation-building agenda. He sees himself as a ‘cultural worker’ (to use a communist term) but in the service of Malay capitalism.
The conservatism comes from the fact that the basic organising structure of society is always upheld, such as his exhortation to stick with the tried and true in the 2004 General Elections. In other words: Don’t vote for Castello!
There’s also something quite moving in his insistence of a continuum of Malay cinematic talent. (He is of the generation and temperament in which Malaysian cinema is Malay cinema, full stop). There are tributes to hoary veterans which would be much more heartfelt if the next chapter wasn’t about some bureaucrat described in similarly glowing terms.
One of the veterans is described as mangsa kapitalis (an incongruous phrase in the whole book) but it’s more accurate to say Yusof sees guided capitalism as the best way to ensure Malays (and it’s usually about the Malays) are never again victims.
Speaking of continuum: His son Syamsul Yusof is now an actor-director as well, and his second film opens tomorrow. It’s the first local flick in ages to get an 18PL rating; does this mean that Junior is disregarding the nation-building values of his father? Ah, but the full title is Bohsia: Jangan Pilih Jalan Hitam … so it’s a movie whose ‘message’ is literally spelled out. I’ll be watching it this weekend, so the magic must still be working. Syabas, Pak Yusof!
(Malay Mail, 22 April)